Just the Tarot Posts

Eating Pancakes with Jesus, Having Lunch with Lucifer and Looking Inward with the Three of Pentacles

A contrast in Christian and Buddhist views of human nature and spirituality.

Are we on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out?

Do we think that heaven or redemption or satori or enlightenment or whatever we want to call it, is, “out there somewhere,” or do we think it’s inside of us, waiting to be uncovered?

Which direction are we gazing? Inside or out? It’s a fundamental, crucial question in terms of how we approach life and our personal spirituality.

In Western Christianity, there’s no question that the focus is very much outward.  Heaven, redemption, blessings are seen as things that exist but they’re not an innate part of us. Christian theology goes something like this:  

“God made you in his self-image but something kind of went wrong.  God is perfect, but you aren’t.  In fact, you’re really, really flawed.  In fact, let’s be honest here, you’re a real piece of  shit.   You like to fornicate and steal and lie to people and, um, eat bacon and shrimp.  You’re pretty much hopeless, unless you change your ways.  If you change your ways, you can eat pancakes with Jesus in heaven, and they use REAL maple syrup, not that Mrs. Butterworth’s crap.  On the other hand, if you DON’T change your ways, well, God is going to have to toss you into a flaming pit where you’ll burn in agony forever.  Because he loves you.”

Now, the salient point in all of that is that THERE IS NO GOOD INSIDE OF US.  Whatever blessings or grace may exist, they exist, “out there,” in God, and it’s only by overcoming our basic, sinful nature that we can have any hope of finding happiness and salvation.

It’s only by becoming, “not us,” that we can get God’s approval and get into that pancake breakfast with Jesus.  That sets us up for a lot of spiritual and psychological tension because, basically, everything we really like to do as human beings is a sin and sends us toward having snacks with Satan, instead of breakfast with Jesus.  Everything from sex, enjoying our possessions, loving a good meal, having a nice lazy day, eating shell fish or pork, even masturbating are ALL deadly sins.

What causes us to commit all of our sins?  Why, our bodies, of course!  It isn’t really ME that wants to get into bed with Mary Jo and fuck like bunnies, it’s my body.  It isn’t really me that wants a BLT, it’s my body.  More specifically, it’s my DAMNED body.  If it weren’t for my body, I could be, like, I dunno . . .  Mother Teresa . . . or maybe Mahatma Gandhi, except he wasn’t a Christian so he went straight to hell, of course. 

The end result of that is that we end up hating even our own bodies because the body is the source of all of those terrible impulses that cause us to sin.  That’s why Medieval christians developed wonderful traditions like whipping themselves and self-crucifixion.  The terrible, sinful body had to be literally beaten into submission so that it wouldn’t make them sin, or they’d end up having lunch with Lucifer or brunch with Beelzebub (also known as, “Beelzebubba,” if you live in Texas.)

It’s interesting and even a little startling to our Western minds, to compare that Christian model of spirituality with the Buddhist model.  Tibetan Buddhists speak of basic human nature in terms of a precious jewel or crystal that is covered with plain rock. Our job, our spiritual quest, is to uncover that beautiful jewel by chipping away at the rock, one little piece at a time.  By meditating, practicing mindfulness, and building loving/kindness into our lives, we gradually reveal more and more of the jewel, our true nature.  As Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche’ put it:

“Enlightenment is not anything new or something we create or bring into existence. It is simply discovering within us what is already there. It is the full realization of our intrinsic nature. 

In sharp contrast to Christian theology, we aren’t terribly flawed,”sinful,” beings.  Instead, we are beings that are incredibly beautiful, holy, and wonder-filled.  We just haven’t uncovered that part of our nature, that precious jewel, yet.

Our redemption isn’t, “out there,” it’s not something we’re going to find in heaven or a book.  It’s very much, “in here.”  It’s something that we find by looking inward, toward our true nature, by meditating, consciousness, and increasing the love in our hearts.

This isn’t to say that Buddhists don’t have their Greatest Hits list of, “sins.”  They condemn anger, judging others, envy, greed, etc.  But, they don’t condemn them in terms of their being a part of our basic nature.  Rather, they’re considered sort of side trips that lead us away from our basic goal of enlightenment.  They’re distractions, rather than definitions of who we really are.

There’s actually a major Buddhist doctrine called, “Precious Human Birth,” which not only says that we’re NOT terrible, sinful creatures, it says that if we were born human, we hit the fucking jackpot.  Only human beings are able to consciously contemplate life, make ethical decisions, and improve our spiritual state of being.  When we consider all of the trillions of other beings on our planet who were incarnated as insects and animals, being humans puts us in a very, very, VERY small minority.  We lucked out.

It’s a major shift in thinking for most of us who were raised in the West.  Our bodies aren’t sources of primal, evil urges; they are precious vessels that contain an ineffable beauty just waiting to be brought to the light.  They are a gift beyond comprehension.  Heaven and salvation aren’t up in the sky or hiding in a holy book – they’re in our hearts.

And if heaven is in our hearts, we are sacred.  Umm . . . really? Hmmm . . .  Are you sure?

The Three of Pentacles is a pretty good illustration of the two choices we can make.  The stone mason stands on a stool, mallet in hand, ready to carve.  Beside him there is a monk and a fool holding a plan.  The monk represents a religious creed, a looking outward to others for answers to our spiritual quest.  The fool represents our basic human nature, that surge of playful, happy spiritual energy that occurs when we gaze within and joyfully embrace what already exists in our hearts and souls.

We just have to understand that everything that we want to be, we already are.

Introverts, Extroverts, Neon Nose Rings and Being True to Our Selves

The difficulty of being seen and heard as an authentic person.

There’s an interesting – and somewhat paradoxical – psychological principle which is that THE MORE WE BECOME OURSELVES, THE LESS LIKELY WE ARE TO BE UNDERSTOOD BY OTHER PEOPLE.  That may sound a little grim, but there’s a lot of truth in it.

By way of an example, I’m a male.  In a very basic sense, I have NO idea what it’s like to be a female.  I can empathize with females, I can understand their political, emotional and social issues, I can be a strong supporter of feminism.  But I can’t understand, on a primal level, what it’s like to be a female.  There’s a whole slew of experiences in there – growing breasts, having your first period, prom dates, motherhood, etc. – that just aren’t a part of my being-in-the-world or my personal history.

I can take that up a notch and say that I’m an American male.  So I would definitely NOT understand what it’s like to be an Indonesian female.  Or I could say that I’m an older American male, so I would really, really not understand what it’s like to be a young Indonesian female.

The more different we are, the less we understand each other.

There’s also a very natural human drive called individuation, where we want to become separate, unique individuals.  We see it most clearly in adolescents.  For the first ten years of their lives they’ve been nothing more than extensions of their parents and their families.  Suddenly, as puberty approaches, they want to dress differently, act differently, and explore new ways of thinking.  They are compelled to differentiate themselves from their parents and if that means they get a neon nose ring to prove they’re different, so be it.

Although it’s less obvious, that drive to be, “different,” continues into adult life.  In the United States, we mainly express it through our adult toys and our clothing.  We talk about someone making a unique, “fashion statement,” or we’ve got a friend who drives around in a rare, restored 59 Chevy, or we raise Venus Flytraps .  We take a lot of pride in our uniqueness and tend to denigrate being, “a part of the herd.”.

For some people, though, that drive to be different, to fully express themselves as unique individuals, can have a downside to it as well. The reason for that is that we also have an equally strong drive TO BE HEARD, not just to be seen.  To be understood.  To have meaningful conversations and interactions with other human beings who really get what we’re feeling and thinking.

As Michael P.Nichols put it in, “The Lost Art of Listening,”

“Few aspects of human experience are as powerful as the yearning to be understood. When we think someone listens, we believe we are taken seriously, that our ideas and feelings are acknowledged, and that we have something to share.”

That transaction of communicating and being understood and validated assumes that we have some common ground with the other person.  The more that we have in common with the other person, the more quickly and easily they’ll understand what we’re saying.  If the only language I speak is English and the only language you speak is Spanish, we’re not going to do much meaningful communicating.  If you’re from New York City and I live in a small town in the mountains, we are NOT going to rock and roll.

It’s really a simple ratio:  the more we’re alike, the more easily we’ll communicate.  The more that we’re different, the more difficult it is to communicate.

So what happens if you’re not just different, but radically different from most people?  So different that you share very little common ground?

Here’s an example from the Jungian personality types.  We know that some people are introverts and some people are extroverts.  The more introverted we are, the less likely we are to understand how extroverts see the world, and vice versa.  Then take that up a notch by looking at an introverted personality type called the INFJ.  Only one percent of the people in the world share that personality type.  Take it up another notch by looking at males who have the INFJ personality type.  Only 0.5 percent of the people in the world share that person’s personality.  

That means that if you are a male INFJ personality type, over 99% percent of the people you meet will NOT understand how you process and view the world.  That’s not a lot of common ground.  That’s not even a pebble.

Or suppose you’ve taken a radical spiritual route such as we see in the Tarot card, The Hermit.  You’ve intentionally withdrawn yourself from the world and consciously sought another path like meditation or extreme solitude. After a few years of that kind of a lifestyle, there isn’t just a minor rift between your vision of the world and the way the average person sees it, there’s a giant, fucking chasm.

The more different you are, the less people will understand you.

Now, experts tell us that there’s a sort of an arc in that process that eventually leads people who are very different back to understanding that, on a spiritual level, we’re all the same.  Marsha Sinetar in her book, “Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics,” says that pursuing your true authentic self will inevitably lead to greater compassion and empathy with other people.  People who are largely detached from society eventually reattach on a much deeper level.

But . . . until that happens, until we reach that point of reattachment, it can be a very painful ride.  There can be the realization that people we really care about just don’t understand us.  The feeling that we don’t fit in, not anywhere.  There can be a terrible hunger to have just one person meet us on common ground.  There can be a severe sense of loneliness, isolation, and, yes, not being heard, a despairing feeling that we will never have a real friend or lover.

Put another way, being true to yourself is not for the faint hearted.  If the average person moves into an isolated cabin in the woods with no phone, no neighbors and no social media, he’ll go nuts in very short order.    Being true to yourself and your unique perceptions of the world can feel very much like living in that isolated cabin, even in the middle of a very busy city.

It requires a strong ego structure.  It requires the ability to enjoy emotional solitude, rather than seeing it as a curse.  It takes a lot of resiliency.  More than anything, though, it takes an ability to ferociously believe in ourselves.  Not to criticize others or try to force them to share our visions, but to say, “I am me.  I have a right to be here.  I have a right to be my own unique expression in the world.  I hope that someday you’ll be able to see me.  I hope that someday you’ll be able to hear me.  But the most important thing is that I can see me and I can hear me.”

Judgments, The Dalai Lama, and Putting Your Hat on the Table

How our belief systems affect our lives.

There’s an old saying that the reason our parents can push our buttons is that they installed the control panel. And there is so much truth in that.

I was watching a presentation from Mike Dooley the other day and he was talking about the importance of our belief systems. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dooley’s work, he’s a strong advocate of the idea that, “thoughts become things,” and teaches visualization and manifestation techniques. His take on belief systems is that they act as, “regulators,” for what we allow ourselves to think, and since thoughts become things, our beliefs determine what we’re going to think and, therefore, what’s going to manifest in our lives. Our beliefs determine the Judgments that we make about life, which determine the course that our life takes.

For instance, if we have a strong, unconscious belief that we’re unattractive it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to visualize ourselves with a good, loving partner. We can’t even THINK of that happening, and so it doesn’t. If we have a strongly held belief that rich people are evil, we’re not going to be able to attract money into our lives because we don’t want to see ourselves as evil.

Those are belief systems on a personal level. There are also what we might call, “meta belief systems,” that operate on a more elevated basis. These are systems like religions and politics and they interact with our personal belief systems. Most people in the United States are Christians and an inherent element in that religion is that people are, “sinners,” that life is suffering, and that there’s a loony tunes god in charge who might just throw you into a pit of eternal flames because you masturbated last night.

We can contrast that world view with this statement from the Dalai Lama: “I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering. . . From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment. I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves.

If we believe in the so-called Law of Attraction – the idea that we draw into our lives people and events that are a match with our energy, emotions, and ideas – then we can see where these two belief systems would have massive implications in our personal lives. If we accept the classic Christian view that people are basically evil and life is shit because we got, “thrown out of the garden,” what are we going to attract into our lives? Evil people and shitty experiences. If we listen to the Dalai Lama and believe that the purpose of life is to be happy, we’ll automatically seek out happy people and create positive experiences in our lives.

All of this operates on an unconscious level, of course. If you were to ask the average Christian if she believes that people are rotten and life is meant to be suffering, she would very likely say no. But that’s exactly what we were taught in Sunday schools and church services when we were forming our views of life and were too young to make realistic assessments. All of those buttons – guilt, sin, life hurts – were installed on our control panels and they’re just waiting to be pushed.

Don Miguel Ruiz talks a lot about this in The Four Agreements. As he put it, most of our belief systems are just, “dreams,” illusions passed down from one generation to the next or forced onto us by our society and they remain largely unexamined. Democrats (or Republicans) are evil. People are no damned good. America loves peace (even though we sell more weapons than any other country in the world.) Monogamy works (even though about half of the people who try it get divorced.) Liberals are socialists. Conservatives are fascists. God’s a male. There is no God. We all have tons and tons of opinions and viewpoints that we live by, that we design our lives around, and, for the most part, we haven’t thought about them very much.

I once read about a woman who went into an absolute fury every time that her husband would put his cap on the kitchen table. When he questioned her about it, the only thing she could say was, “It’s just wrong.” She realized that her mother had taught her that lesson, so she asked her mother why it was wrong. Her mother’s response was that her mother had taught her that it was a terrible offense. She finally worked her way back to her great grandmother who started laughing and said, “Oh, lord, child, when I was young everyone had head lice. That’s why it was wrong to put your hat on the table.”

So three generations of her family had passed down a very strong belief and reaction about a simple behavior like putting a hat on a table. And none of them, until her, had ever questioned the belief or wondered what was behind it.

The sad part of this is that so many of our beliefs and judgements are just like that: totally unconscious ways of judging the world and ourselves that were passed down to us by people who weren’t thinking about them and accepted by us without thinking about them.

That’s also the good news.

Once we accept the idea that a lot of our most cherished beliefs – if not most of them – are constructed on total bullshit, then we can just get rid of them. It sounds like a really radical idea when we first encounter it but why not? Why not just get rid of beliefs that limit us and restrict us, and adopt beliefs that serve us better and allow us to expand our lives?

For instance, the belief that I’ll NEVER have enough money, shuts me down and keeps me frozen in place. The belief that the Universe is filled with abundance and I deserve my share opens me up to expanding and receiving. The belief that I have a RIGHT to be angry keeps me upset and repels positive people. The belief that I have a RIGHT to be a loving person attracts positive, loving people into my life and reinforces the idea that I’m lovable.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche said that most of us will never become enlightened in this life and that we’ll continue to live in the dream of illusion. But he also said that we CAN decide whether we want to have a good dream or a bad dream. And the road to a good dream starts with our beliefs about that dream.

Trauma, The Tower, and The Shit Happens Factor

The causes of trauma and how to deal with it.

Philosophers and religious leaders have long been fascinated with what we might call the, “shit happens,” factor in life.  Perhaps it’s because of our human tendency toward binary thinking, but most creeds will fall into one of two categories:  life is good and the universe is benevolent and loving; or life is hard and the universe is cold, capricious, and/or meaningless.  The more spiritual religions tend toward the first view that life is good and the more primitive religions tend toward the view that life is hard.

If we look at it objectively, life is pretty good, pretty much most of the time.  Unless we have the severe misfortune of living in a war zone or a climate disaster, most of us don’t have something terrible happening to us, right around 98% of the time.  Most of us aren’t starving to death, suffering from a terrible disease, or in a constant series of car wrecks.  To the extent that we’re unhappy or dissatisfied, it’s because of our own view of the world and not because something exterior is wrong.

It’s fairly easy, then, to build a case for the idea that life is good and the universe is benevolent and loving.  Food is good, drink is good, sex is good, friends are good, creative fulfillment is good.  Butterflies are good, birds are good, crystals and candles and incense and vibrators are good.  There are a LOT of things about life that are good, and very few things that are bad.

Most of the time.  But shit happens.  Sometimes, really SERIOUS shit happens.

We can be walking along, singing a song, happy and free, when suddenly a speeding ice cream truck jumps the curb, runs over us and we’re in the hospital for months.  And while we’re there, we lose our job, our house and car are repossessed, and our partner runs off to Tierra del Fuego with a tattoo artist.

That kind of an experience is exemplified in The Tower card.  It’s the kind of an experience where everything in our lives is absolutely blasted into dust and we’re left standing there, psychically naked and bleeding, realizing that everything we believed in, everything we took to be solid and dependable, was nothing more than an illusion.

There’s a word for what happens to us internally when we go through that kind of experience:  trauma.  Gabor Mate’, who is one of the leading experts on trauma, says that trauma is a perfectly normal reaction to a completely abnormal event.  

There are several components to trauma that have to be unpacked.  First of all, it’s not a mild or everyday experience.  We tend to overuse the word and talk about how a scary movie was traumatizing or it was traumatizing to spend Thanksgiving with relatives we don’t like.  That’s not it.  Trauma is caused by events that completely overwhelm the individual’s resources and leave her feeling absolutely powerless.  These are things like rape, beatings, war, abandonment or abuse as a child, the death of a partner.  These are HUGE events in a person’s life.

Another element in trauma is a sort of a psychic frozenness, a process where the person gets stuck in the traumatic experience.  A very important point here is that deep suffering does not necessarily equal trauma.  In the Tarot card, The Hanged Man, we see someone who has gone through very deep suffering but has come out on the other side with profound emotional and spiritual growth.  He didn’t get stuck in the pain, he grew from it.

Put another way, he had the emotional and spiritual tools that were necessary to deal with the pain, therefore he wasn’t overwhelmed by it, therefore he wasn’t traumatized.

If we look at it on a purely physiological level, there’s a defined sequence of events that takes place in our brains when we’re confronted by a dangerous event.

1 – The amygdala (the so-called, “lizard brain”) starts the fight or flight reaction.  We’re flooded with stress hormones, our hearts race, our hands shake. We either attack what’s threatening us or we run away from it.  Either way, we resolve the danger.

2 – The amygdala shuts down the fight or flight reaction and our bodies and brains return to a normal state.

3 – The hippocampus, which is the part of our brains that controls memory, basically says, “Whew, glad that’s over,” and files it away as a completed event.

4 – Just in case that sequence doesn’t happen, the prefrontal cortex, which is like the CEO of our brains, says, “HEY!  It’s over.  Settle down, kids.”

We know from functional brain scans that this normal sequence doesn’t take place in trauma.  The amygdala starts the fight or flight reaction but it never ends it.  The hippocampus never properly files away the experience as being over and so we keep re-experiencing the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks and anxiety triggers.  And the prefrontal cortex shows markedly diminished activity so it never says, “Hey, there’s nothing out there to threaten you.”

That’s why a combat veteran may end up cowering in a corner from hearing fireworks on the 4th of July.  That’s why a rape victim may go into a full blown panic attack when she sees a harmless stranger in a parking garage.  That’s why so many trauma victims become alcoholics and drug addicts in an attempt to numb what they’re feeling.  Because, in a very real sense, it’s NOT over for them.  They’re still living in active fight or flight mode, they’ve never been able to digest the event as a memory, and they’re not able to intervene rationally and say, “There’s no danger.”

So what can we do about all of that?  What can we do to draw ourselves out of the disaster of The Tower card and into the spiritual wisdom of The Hanged Man?

First and foremost, a good therapist can be invaluable.  Remember, the trauma happened because the person felt overwhelmed and didn’t have the resources to deal with it.  A good therapist can start to fill up our emotional and spiritual tool boxes and give us those resources that we didn’t have when we were overwhelmed.  We can learn to reframe the experience, to intervene with compulsive anxiety patterns, to stop in the middle of a panic attack and really tell ourselves, “There is NOTHING wrong.  Breathe deeply.  Relax.”

There are a couple of simple techniques we can use at home, as well.  Harvard Medical School and Dr. Dawson Church have both demonstrated that EFT Tapping sessions can dramatically reduce the presence of the stress hormone cortisol and calm the activity of the amygdala.  Tapping basically takes us out of the endless loop of the fight or flight reaction and begins to turn the traumatic event into a neutral memory.  There are resources for tapping all over the internet but a good place to start is with Rick Ortner, who’s done so much to disseminate the technique.

Another simple technique is mindfulness meditation.  Like tapping, mindfulness meditation reduces cortisol and calms the amygdala’s fight or flight response.  Even more dramatically, though, after only 8 weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation, the amygdala actually shrinks and the prefrontal cortex grows.  Literally, anxiety and fear are physically shrinking while rational thought is growing.  Again, there are resources all over the internet for practicing mindfulness, but here’s a nice guided meditation from Great Meditations to get you started.

Most of us who are on a spiritual path prefer to think that life is basically good and that the universe has an underlying energy of love and creativity.  Nonetheless, shit happens.  To all of us, sooner or later.  We don’t have to make it a continuing feature of our lives, though.  We can move out of painful experiences stronger, wiser, and more evolved than when they occurred and get back to enjoying butterflies and birds, crystals and incense, good friends and vibrators.  L’chaim!

The Star, Fairies, Cat’s Milk, and Roe V. Wade

Our ancient ancestors believed that some stars were alive.  They looked at the night skies and observed that some of the stars, which we now call planets, moved around in the sky.  Since things which are alive move, it was perfectly reasonable – given the extent of their knowledge at the time –  to conclude that these moving stars were actual living beings and give them names like Mars, Jupiter, or Venus.  They couldn’t prove they were alive but this unprovable metaphysical belief was accepted by most of humanity throughout most of our history.  Some people still think that stars and planets are alive and have their own souls, which is a perfectly fine, harmless metaphysical belief.

All metaphysical beliefs are created equal.

If that sounds a little abstruse, allow me to explain.  All metaphysical beliefs – ALL OF THEM – are by their nature unprovable using physical means.  Metaphysical beliefs deal with the invisible world of souls, spirits, gods, demons, elves, fairies.  These are not physical entities and, therefore, cannot be quantified in the physical world.

I may believe very strongly in the existence of the Soul – and I do – but I can’t prove its existence.  I can’t take a picture of it, I can’t weigh it, I can’t pull it out of a paper bag and say, “See?  Here it is.  Told you it existed, didn’t I?”

I also believe in elves, fairies, ghosts and gods and goddesses in the plural.  If you’re a materialistic atheist, you might look at me and say, “You know, you’re a little touched in the head.  You’re saying that you believe in invisible things that no one can actually prove exist.”  

That would be quite a reasonable statement from a materialist atheist, and it would be equally reasonable for me to say, “So what?  What business is it of yours, what I believe in?  If I believe in fairies, it’s not hurting you in the least, is it?  It’s not like my fairies are stealing your cat’s milk or anything.”

Keep in mind, though, that this scenario is valid for ALL metaphysical beliefs, not just fairies and elves and ghosts.  It applies equally to Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Ganesh, and Tara.  All of these are beliefs in invisible beings whose existence can’t be proved (or disproved) any more than hob-goblins and imps.  

All metaphysical beliefs are created equal.  And equally unprovable.  

As long as they don’t hurt anyone else, there’s really no problem with them.  For millions of people, they’re actually sources of great comfort.  They help us to feel that we’re not alone in a vast, cold universe and that there’s some meaning and purpose to our existence.  They help us to face death and tragedy with faith and courage.  There’s much to be said for them, but they are ALL equally unprovable.

Where we start to run into a little trouble with them is when we decide that OUR unprovable metaphysical beliefs are better than THEIR unprovable metaphysical beliefs.  To a certain extent that’s just human nature and doesn’t cause any great harm.  If I say, “My Goddess is better than your Jesus, neener, neener, neener!” you may find that obnoxious and annoying, but it doesn’t really harm you in any way.

Where we run into REAL trouble is when we decide that OUR unprovable metaphysical beliefs are better than THEIR unprovable metaphysical beliefs, THEREFORE they have an obligation to adopt our unprovable beliefs and abandon their own.

By way of an example, if I believe in fairies, this belief isn’t harming you at all (assuming my fairies aren’t stealing your cat’s milk.)  On the other hand, if I go up on a mountain top to meditate and I come back down with the Ten Fairy Commandments and DEMAND, on penalty of death, that everyone follow the Fairy Commandments, then I’ve made a very serious step into a spiritual dictatorship.  If I decide that the faces of fairies are sacred and that it’s a sin to portray them in paintings and drawings, and that it’s okay for me to kill anyone who does that, I’m a psychopath who should be locked up.

Because, you see, they’re all unprovable metaphysical beliefs.

We laugh at the idea of the fairies issuing Ten Commandments, or them behaving like Allah and saying their faces can’t be depicted.  We might not laugh at the idea of a fairy who was crucified, killed, and then walked out of his tomb, but we’d at least find the story goddamned peculiar.

Now, all of these stories and cultural myths about unprovable beliefs are, as I said, relatively harmless, right up to the point where we insist that other people have to share our belief in them.  In forcing other people to act according to our beliefs, we violate their freedom and their personal choice.

There’s a matter of degree in that, of course, and it’s based on how much the other person’s beliefs are actually harming us and interfering in our lives.  I have atheist friends, for instance, who become quite irate over the fact that United States coins bear the slogan, “In God We Trust.”  For the most part, we shrug that off because it really doesn’t harm us in any way, therefore it’s not important.  On the other hand, if they were to put Jesus or Allah on the quarter dollars, we’d be pissed.  That’s crossing a line where someone is trying to impose their unprovable metaphysical beliefs on our daily lives and that violates our freedom and personal choice.  It’s going from a generic, multi-purpose god-we-trust to a specific, “In THIS god we trust.”

All of which brings us to the overturning of Roe V. Wade.

Now, there’s been a lot of political posturing and folderol wrapped around that decision by the Not Very Supreme Court.  There are people writing about constitutional, “originalism,” and states rights and decentralizing our government to return power to the voters.  All of which is bullshit.

The real issue here is exemplified by the anti-abortion protesters holding up signs that say, “Abortion Is Murder.”  

We all know what murder is:  it’s the killing of another human being.  If you walk up and shoot me in the head, that’s murder.  If I fly into a rage and run over you with an ice cream truck, that’s murder (even if it’s a slightly more interesting form of murder.)  There’s no debate or ambiguity in our minds about exactly what constitutes murder.  No, the question revolves around exactly what constitutes a human being.

On the face of it, the answer to that seems simple. I’m a human, you’re a human, all of those bipedal critters at the mall are humans.  We tend to define humanness in terms of walking around, talking, being conscious, and being able to interact with the world.  There are certain physical, cognitive, and emotional qualities which, when taken together, we call a human being.

There are basic qualities that we all recognize as a being that’s human and we don’t pretend that something which doesn’t have those qualities IS human.  While we may know that every sperm cell is a POTENTIAL human being, we don’t view them as actually BEING humans and prosecute men for mass murder when they masturbate.  We may know that every egg that a woman produces is a POTENTIAL human being, but we don’t hold a funeral when she has her period.

Roe V. Wade was the simple recognition of the fact that when a sperm cell penetrates an egg, it remains a POTENTIAL human being.  At the point of impregnation and well through a large part of the pregnancy, the fetus has NO characteristics that constitute what we think of as a human being.  Pregnancy is a continuum in which the fetus becomes more and more human but is not, in fact, a human being at the inception of the pregnancy.  And if there’s no human, there can’t be any murder.  There can’t be any violation of human rights because there isn’t a human being there until late into the second trimester.  

What’s glitching up our national conversation on this is the unprovable metaphysical belief that there is an entity called, “the soul,” combined with the unprovable metaphysical belief that this invisible entity enters into the egg at the exact second that the sperm cell does and – shazam! – we have a full human being. 

If – and only if – we all mutually accept those unprovable metaphysical beliefs is it legitimate for the courts to abolish abortion.  Since most of us DON’T accept those metaphysical beliefs, what’s happening is that a minority’s religious views are being imposed on the majority without their consent.  Which is a theocracy, not a democracy.

I’m not meaning to denigrate or mock christian beliefs.  If they want to believe that the Soul zips into an egg the second a sperm cell enters it, that doesn’t hurt me a bit.  As long as it doesn’t steal my cat’s milk, their christian soul is welcome to do whatever it fancies. 

What does hurt me, though, is when those unprovable beliefs are imposed on me as a government policy.  Because, let’s face it, the christians do NOT have a good track record in being a part of governments.  These are the same fine folks who brought us the Inquisition.  These are the same folks who raped and pillaged and murdered their way through South America in the name of Jesus.  These are the same folks who enslaved millions of innocent Africans because the Bible said that slavery was alright.  These are the same folks who sat silently in their golden churches while Hitler murdered most of the European Jews.

We have no reason to believe that christian fanatics will respect other people’s beliefs or even their lives.  And we have many reasons to believe that they won’t, so we need to stop this, now, before it gets worse.  And that is NOT an unprovable metaphysical belief.  That’s history.

The Two of Cups, Low Libidos, and Smoldering Men in Skirts

A brief look at the myths and expectations surrounding American sexuality.

It’s always kind of fun – and illuminating – to identify a cultural myth.  Cultural myths are strong beliefs and assumptions that we have about our societies or countries which are almost totally unsupported by facts.  But we still believe them.

I remember that my first experience in cultural, “myth busting,” concerned monogamy.  Most Americans hold a very strong faith in the notion that everyone has a Soul Mate, that we will eventually meet that Soul Mate, and that we will live happily ever after when that happens.  But, of course, our divorce rate has held steady at 45 to 50% for decades, so it’s pretty obvious that the standard monogamy model isn’t working out very well for at least half of us.  Nonetheless, we keep getting married.  And divorced.  And married.  And divorced.

It was such a liberating experience for me to finally get some perspective on that issue and be able to say, “Oh . . . it’s just bullshit.  I’m not a failure and all of my friends who’ve been divorced aren’t failures.  The model is flawed.  Happily Ever After Marriage for everyone is a cultural myth.”

Many cultural myths are relatively harmless exercises in ego.  Germans, for instance, have long considered themselves to be an extremely clean and fastidious people.  Yet, some polling in the 1970s found that they’re the least likely of all Europeans to change their underwear on a regular basis.  Italian men have always been seen as red hot lovers, but Italian women report that they have a dreadfully low rate of orgasm during sex.  The British think of themselves as wonderfully sophisticated but . . . you know . . . blood pudding and kidney pies?  Really?

Other cultural myths are darker and more disturbing.  Almost 50% of the Japanese identify as Buddhists, a religion which teaches the sacredness of all sentient beings.  That hasn’t prevented their culture from ruthlessly hunting down and slaughtering whales and dolphins, which are some of the most sentient beings on the earth.  A majority of Americans claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, which are all about love and compassion, but we’re one of the most violent societies in the world and half of us voted for Donald Trump.  In both cases, our cultural myths have allowed us to deny and rationalize our actual behavior.  “We’re not really like that.”

Yes, we are.

One of the most important things about cultural myths is that they carry with them a set of unconscious expectations.  We think of them, not just as the way things ARE, but as the way things OUGHT TO BE.   And when we feel that we haven’t lived up to those sets of expectations, we beat the hell out of ourselves psychologically.  In the example of monogamy, for instance, we have the expectation that our marriages OUGHT to succeed and, when they don’t, we feel like miserable failures.  If we can step back from that a little bit and realize that about half of all marriages DON’T last, then it removes the sense of personal failure.

It’s the expectations that are killing us, not the reality.

All of which is offered as an explanation for why my radar started pinging this week when I ran across this article about American sexuality.  Or, more specifically, American libido, also known as, “sex drive.”  Over 26% of American adults reported that they hadn’t had sex in the previous year.  Not even once.

The first thought, of course, is, “Oh, the damned pandemic.”  We’ve all been isolated so we couldn’t have as much sex.  Not true.  In 2018, the percentage of sexless Americans was 24% and in 2016 it was 23%.  So right around 1 in 4 of us are NOT getting any sugar and haven’t been for years. 

 It’s probably a higher number than that, simply because of the nature of the male ego.  If you ask a normal male if he’s gotten laid in the last year his immediate response is going to be, “Oh, yeah.  Lots of times.  Women are crazy about me.  Just can’t get enough.  I’m worn out from it, I tell ya.”

Not.

I’m tagging this as evidence of a cultural myth because Americans think of ourselves as being a HIGHLY sexual culture.  In so many ways we become obsessed with our bodies, not just to be healthy, but to make them more attractive sexually.  We spend millions of dollars every year on clothing and gym fees so that we can look as tight and sexy as possible.  Our pornography industry is booming.  Our movies and television shows and books are replete with sexual references and innuendo.  Our most popular comedians would be at a loss for words if they couldn’t rap about sex. 

Just looking at the surface of our culture, we’d have to conclude that Americans LOVE sex.  We think about it and talk about it and joke about it almost constantly.  We sell hundreds of books and videos on how to be better lovers and keep our partners so satisfied that they’ll melt into the mattress when we’re through making love.

But then we look at those statistics again.  One quarter of Americans aren’t having sex at all.  This isn’t some sexual blip that’s caused by the baby boomers getting older, either.  The people who aren’t having sex are young, middle aged, old, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, the full spectrum.

Does it matter?  

It’s an interesting question because, as one sex researcher put it, “Low libido is only a problem if you think it’s a problem.”  The traditional approach has been to view it as a problem from the beginning and then look for the source of the problem, which is the real problem. What’s CAUSING your lack of libido?  Is it high blood pressure, low blood pressure, anxiety, depression, lack of exercise, obesity, sexual dysfunction, constant fatigue?  

But suppose it’s none of the above and a lot of Americans just don’t much like sex.  Is that a problem?

Not in and of itself.  If we can become dispassionate enough to look at having sex as merely a human activity, much like jogging or playing golf, then it’s no problem at all.  Some people like to get out and smack their balls around the old course and others don’t.  No problem.

It’s when we get into the expectations that go along with the cultural myth that we begin to encounter the, “problems.”  Historically, most of these libido studies have been aimed squarely at women.  There is a sort of an underlying assumption that all healthy, normal males like to fuck like bunnies under a full moon all the time and – if their wives and girlfriends aren’t willing to accommodate them –  that’s a problem.  The woman’s problem.

Realistically, yes, it is a problem when one romantic partner has a high sex drive and the other partner has a very low sex drive, but it has nothing to do with gender.  And it’s a problem that could be avoided by some honest discussion going into the relationship.  “Okay, I like sex a LOT and you don’t like it much at all.  What are we going to do about that?  Do we have an open marriage?  Is it okay for us to get our needs met outside of the relationship?  Is this a big enough problem that we just shouldn’t be together at all?”  

The basic expectation here is that all sex drives are created equal and that most of them are set on, “high.”  Therefore, if I like sex more than you like sex, then there’s obviously something wrong with you, like maybe you’re frigid.  Or, flipping that, maybe there’s something wrong with me, because I like sex too much and I must be some kind of a pervert.

There’s also a built in expectation that, somehow, everyone else must be having sex – really good sex – pretty much constantly and, since we’re not, there must be something dreadfully wrong with us.  We must be . . . uh, oh . . . sexually unattractive.  Or too fat.  Or too skinny.  Or too shy.  Or too outgoing.  Or too young.  Or too old.  Or our breasts aren’t perky enough or our dicks aren’t big enough.  Or maybe we’re just ugly and we dress funny.  

Again, if we can step back from that and realize that 1 out of every 4 people we meet apparently don’t have any sexual desire at all – or so little desire that it’s not even worth pursuing – then we can jettison all of those negative self images.  Perhaps, just perhaps, that person who doesn’t find us attractive doesn’t find ANYONE attractive.  

Hmmm . . .

The Two of Cups shows a couple staring deeply into each other’s eyes and the man’s hand reaching out to touch the woman.  A lion, the symbol of power and sensuality, hovers between them in the air and we can almost feel the sexual attraction smoldering like an ember that’s about to burst into flames.

Woof.  Smolder, smolder.

But suppose she’s looking at him and thinking, “What kind of a guy wears a skirt?”  Or he’s looking at her and thinking, “If she’s not going to drink her wine, maybe I could have it.”

Maybe they haven’t had sex in over a year and they don’t want to have it now.

As a society, we’ve made great strides in realizing that there’s nothing wrong with sex.  We pretty much accept it, in all of its amazing varieties, as perfectly normal and healthy, magical and fun.

We have a ways to go, though, in accepting that, while there’s nothing wrong with sex, there isn’t necessarily anything right with sex, either.  There’s no, “norm,” that we all have to meet, no perfect amount of sex that we’re supposed to have, no particular number of notches we’re supposed to cut into our bedposts to show that we’re, “healthy, well adjusted human beings.”  And judging our personal worth by the number of bed partners we have is insane.

If we have an extremely high sex drive, that’s okay.  If we have an extremely low sex drive, that’s okay, too.  It’s only a problem if we think it’s a problem. 

Everything else is just a myth.

The Nine of Wands, Buddhist Emotions, and Having Sex While We’re Water Skiing

On the emotional nature of ideas.

In the Tarot, each suit of the minor arcana represents a different realm of the human experience.  Cups represent emotions, pentacles are physical possessions, swords are energy, and wands are the intellectual realm of ideas.

At first glance, we’d hardly associate the Nine of Wands with ideas at all.  A man stands there clutching a wand, a fearful, almost paranoid look on his face, and a bandage tied around his forehead.  He looks like he came out on the losing end of a bar fight much more than he looks like he’s swarming with ideas.

When we  stop for a moment and ponder just exactly what ideas really are, though, the card starts to make sense.  We all have thoughts – a  LOT of them – from the moment that we wake up in the morning until the moment that we fall asleep.  Some meditators call our thoughts, “the mind stream,” because they feel like an endless stream constantly rushing along from one point to the next to the next.

And, let’s face it – many, if not most of them, really aren’t worth much.  The Buddhists talk about, “monkey mind,” which basically means that our minds are like monkeys jumping randomly from one branch to another, with no particular order or meaning.  Rather than having truly great thoughts, our thoughts are more like:

-did I turn off the coffee pot?

-why is the cat crying?

-remember to buy more cat food.

-what am I making for dinner tonight?

– should I wear brown socks?

-who invented toast?

-I think I’m a little hung over.

-where’s the alka seltzer?

-remember to buy alka seltzer when you get the cat food.

All of those thoughts occur in mere seconds and they go on like that all day, every day.  Most of our thoughts, then, are just immediate, fleeting responses to whatever’s happening in our environments at any given moment.

There are, of course, more organized thoughts that we generate with problem solving activities.  That’s where we sit down and really concentrate on how we’re going to get from point A to point B, how we’re going to get through work activities or budget enough money to pay the rent.  How to organize our shopping lists and plan meals before we go to the grocery store.  What we’re going to say at a business presentation and how to prioritize the points that we want to make.

Yet another type of thought is what we could call intuition, where an idea or a notion just seems to pop up out of nowhere.  We may be shocked or surprised or delighted by an intuition because it frequently has little in common with our usual thinking patterns and provides us with a whole new way of looking at a problem or even life in general.  When someone asked Einstein how he’d come up with the theory of relativity, he said that it, “just dropped in,” while he was playing the piano.  Intuition may occur as a thought but there’s no feeling that we somehow generated it.  It really is as if someone or something else dropped it into our mindstreams.

Now, one thing that all three of these ways of thinking – rapid responses to our environments, organized problem solving, and intuition – have in common is that they all appear to be relatively innocuous, relatively harmless.  It’s hard to figure out how you could go from them to the character in the Nine of Wands who looks like he got the snot beaten out of him.  What the hell happened?  Did he beat himself with his own ideas?  Did someone else dislike his ideas so much that they beat him up?

We find a clue to that process in Eckhart Tolle’s book, “A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.”  In his discussion of the, “pain body,” (the accumulation of subconscious emotional pain that we all carry) he states:  “. . . emotion is the body’s reaction to your mind . . . An emotion is the body’s response to a thought.”

In other words, thoughts never occur in isolation.  There are always emotions attached to them.  With many of them, the emotions, like the thoughts themselves, may arise and fall away so rapidly that we’re not even aware of them, but they’re there.

To use the example from above, we might think, “Remember to buy more cat food,” and not even realize we’re feeling anything.  Just below the surface though, there may be a fair number of emotional reactions, like, “I love my cat, I hate the smell of that fish flavored cat food, I miss my other cat who died, it all costs so much and I’m so worried about money . . .”  Love, hate, sadness, worry, all flashing through us over a damned can of cat food.

We might think that thoughts obviously can’t hurt us.  We can think of a purple polka dotted hippopotamus or the theory of relativity and neither of those thoughts is going to hurt us or anyone else.  They’re just ideas.  But – again – they’re ideas with emotions attached to them, and, yes, emotions can hurt us or help us.

If we obsessively ruminate over unhappy thoughts all day, that will hurt us.  It causes our blood pressure to shoot up, our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, our serotonin levels drop and we become much more susceptible to depression and disease.  

If we interrupt those obsessively unhappy thoughts with the memories of something that made us happy – a vacation, great sex, a good friend, water skiing,  a vacation where we had great sex with a good friend while we were water skiing – that will help us.  Our blood pressure drops, serotonin levels increase, stress hormones drop, our immune systems get a boost.

So a good first step in not getting beaten up by our ideas is to consciously realize that every thought has some emotional component to it.  Every time we think something, we feel something.  The more aware we are of that, the more aware we become of what we’re actually feeling and we can gradually start to eliminate the thoughts that make us have bad feelings.  Like fish flavored cat food.

Another thing that can help us is to meditate a bit on the Buddhist notion that NOTHING HAS ANY VALUE.  At first blush, that may sound like a radically nihilistic notion.  “What the hell do you mean, nothing has any value?  I’ll tell you what has some value, Bubba – my new IPhone.  THAT’S what has some value.  Exactly $799.98, plus shipping, that’s how much value it’s got.  Don’t tell ME nothing has any value.”

To express the idea a little more clearly, nothing has any INTRINSIC value.  It only has the value that we assign to it, the value that we project into it.  An IPhone is just a piece of plastic and electronic components.  There’s nothing in it that’s intrinsically, “happy making,”  until we decide that IPhones make us happy.  Or unhappy.

Buddhists put a little finer edge on it by saying that we assign one of two feelings to virtually everything we encounter in life:  attraction or aversion.  Either we like it, in which case we want it, or we don’t like it, in which case we want to avoid it.  

The tricky part is in realizing that there is NOTHING that’s either likable or unlikable until we decide it’s likable or unlikable.  It’s wonderful to realize that because it gets rid of a whole host of unconscious motivations like greed, prejudice, possessiveness, materialism.  Literally, nothing has any value unless we want to think it has some value. Nothing’s good unless we think it, nothing’s bad unless we think it.

It also makes us deliciously responsible for our own lives because we’re no longer victims of circumstance.  How many times have we all said, “I’ll be happy when I get a new car, or a new computer, or a new job, or a better lover, or a nicer house?”  We chronically think that there is something or someone OUT THERE that will magically make us happy.  And if it’s OUT THERE, then we don’t have any control over it.  It’s something that happens to us or it doesn’t, either something outside of us makes us happy, or we’re just doomed to be miserable.

Once we realize that it’s our own thoughts that are assigning happy or miserable feelings to the things out there, that we are unconsciously deciding that some things are attractive and some things are aversive, then we control our own happiness.  Or we can be just as miserable as we want to be.

Happy, sad, mean, joyful, miserable.  They all start with thoughts and we, and we alone, make our thoughts.

The Hierophant, The Sky Thingie, and Noshing at the Spiritual Buffet.

An exploration of religion versus spirituality as illustrated by buffet lines.

The Tarot card The Hierophant shows us a Pope-like figure seated on a throne, with acolytes bowing down to him.  In a general sense, The Hierophant represents all that is traditional, conformist, and conventional.  In a more specific sense, he represents dogmatic religion, as opposed to spirituality.

The basic idea here is that if you want to learn about religion and what it teaches, you go to a priest, a pastor, a rabbi, or an imam.  If you want to learn about spirituality, you meditate or you take psychedelics or get involved with a tradition such as shamanism or ecstatic dance.  Religion involves learning about other people’s interactions with the divine.  Spirituality is about having your own interaction with the divine.

I started thinking about all of this the other day when I read this passage from David Michies sweet little book, “Buddhism for Busy People:”

“One of the refreshing things about Buddhism, however, is its insistence that you should only take up those practices which benefit you.  If certain aspects aren’t helpful, simply put them to one side.  You can always come back to them later.  You won’t go to hell because you don’t believe in karma.  Nor will believing in it guarantee you a place in heaven – like everything else in Buddhism, it is what you DO that counts, not what you say you believe.”

I was contrasting that in my own mind to a Catholic priest I saw on a news show recently inveighing on the subject of Catholics who supported a woman’s right to have an abortion.  “We don’t agree with, ‘super-market Catholicism,’ “ he said.  “You’re not allowed to push your cart down the aisle and pick out this part of the Catholic faith but reject other parts.  You have to accept the entire doctrine or you’re not really a practicing Catholic.”

The differences in the two approaches couldn’t be any clearer.  Buddhism is basically saying, “Hey, here’s what we think the truth is but you need to pick out what works for you.”  Traditional religions are saying, “Here’s what the truth is and you need to agree with it, even if it seems like nonsense to you.”  The Buddha actually encouraged his followers to debate him on concepts  they disagreed with and cast aside whatever they thought was wrong.  On the other hand, it’s Catholic doctrine that whatever the Pope says about faith is infallibly true.  Always.  From god’s mouth to his ear.  Period.

The difference in those approaches probably lies in ancient human history when our cultures had shamans rather than priests and pastors.  Our ancestors undoubtedly found the world to be a scary place that was full of mysterious and sometimes life threatening occurrences.  We can easily imagine a cave woman leaning against a tree enjoying a rainstorm when -KABLAM!!!!!!!! – a bolt of lightning blows the tree into splinters and flings her twenty feet through the air.

Her first response would probably be something along the lines of, “Holy shit, what was THAT?!?”

As she clambered to her feet, though, and brushed the mud and splinters from her loin cloth she’d have a brilliant insight:  something must have CAUSED the lightning thingie that blew up  the tree.  And since the lightning thingie came out of the sky, whatever caused it must live . . . up there . . . in the sky.  

She’d probably spend many nights around the cave fire discussing this with the other tribe members, comparing notes, and arguing about the exact nature of the . . . Sky Thingie . . . that threw the . . . lightning thingie . . . at the tree.  What was it like?  Was it like a human being?  Why would it do such a thing?  Did it hate trees?  Perhaps it had been aiming the lightning at the woman and missed her and hit the tree?  Did it have poor eyesight, then?  What was it so pissed off about, anyway?  Was it a male or a female thingie?  And if it was a male thingie, did it have . . . you know . . . a thingie?

So there would have been many complex disputations arising out of the tree being hit by the lightning.  At a certain point, a cave person would step out of the shadows and say, “Hey, I had a dream about the Sky Thingie that threw the lightning thingie.  He says that if you’ll sacrifice a goat and not eat shellfish he won’t do it again.”

“Oh, really?” someone might reply.  “So the Sky Thingie is definitely a male?”

“Well, yes.  And he has a beard and wears sandals and sits on a golden rock.”

“So, you can talk to him, then?  Did he say why he’s throwing lightning thingies at us?”

“He did it because you didn’t sacrifice a goat and you ate clams.  Those are the rules.  He told me.”

Thus was born the shaman:  a special class of human beings who had knowledge of and were able to intervene with supernatural forces.  He or she would no doubt have been seen as just as important – or more so – than the tribal hunters, fishers, or gatherers.  After all, she had a special relationship with the Sky Thingie and could protect the tribe from supernatural temper fits and, um, sky anomalies. 

The tribe would have soon realized two things:  (a) like all humans the shaman was mortal and would die at some point; (b) therefore, he needed to train other shamans to take his place and keep a record of the Sky Thingie’s rules.

Thus were born priests and religions.

As the centuries passed and the priest/shamans had more and more visions and wrote down more and more rules from the Sky Thingies, the rules got more and more complex and began to include things like:

  • Don’t eat bacon.
  • Don’t trip blind people.
  • Don’t have sex with sheep.
  • Don’t work on Saturday.
  • It’s okay to have slaves, but only for seven years.
  • The Sky Thingie loves you and if you don’t believe that we’ll kill you.
  • Always capitalize the Sky Thingie’s name.  If you don’t, we’ll kill you.
  • Never draw a picture of the Sky Thingie or we’ll kill you.
  • Women are property and they should cover their heads and faces.  Or we’ll kill you.

You can tell from the last few rules that things started to take a nasty turn somewhere along the way and that the priests and religions were getting more powerful in society.  Not only had they established themselves as the only people who could interpret what the Sky Thingie wanted, they could also kill anyone who even tried to talk to the Sky Thingie on their own.

That’s really the point that we’re at with many of today’s formal religions.  They consist of centuries of barnacle-like accretions of irrational rules that can only be interpreted by the priests and pastors and rabbis.  Intelligent self inquiry is NOT encouraged.

Which is why the Buddhist approach is so refreshing.  

Formal religions have rules like, “Don’t eat bacon because the Sky Thingie says not to.”   Buddhist discussions are more like:

“Don’t eat bacon.”  

“Why not?  I really like BLT’s.”

“Do you want to be happy and avoid pain?”

“Well, yes.”

“Do you think pigs want to be happy and avoid pain?”

“Um . . . well . . . yes.  I suppose they do.”

“Do you think it’s painful to be raised in a tiny pen and killed when you’re young?”

“Well . . . yes.”

“Would you be happy if someone cut you up, fried you in a teflon pan and slapped you on a piece of bread with some tomatoes and lettuce?”

“Well, no.”

“Then don’t eat bacon.”

And, of course, even then, you’re free to eat bacon sandwiches if you want to.  No one will kill you and you won’t go to hell.  You might reincarnate as a pig, but, hey, fair’s fair, right?

As long as we’re on the subject of food, think of it this way:  religion is like being invited to a huge Thanksgiving dinner.  There are platters full of turkey and mashed potatoes and baked yams and apple pies and cornbread dressing and green bean casseroles with those strange fried onion things on top.  

Maybe you really hate baked yams or green beans and you just want a little turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes and gravy.  But, no, there’s a huge scary guy with a baseball bat at the head of the table and he says that you have to eat EVERYTHING!!!  Especially the green beans and yams.  Or he’ll kill you.  And then you’ll go to hell.  Gulp.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is more like a buffet line.  You walk along, looking at the varieties of food and you only pick out the food that appeals to YOU.  You don’t force down every single thing on the line just to prove that you’re faithful.  If you feel like a shrimp salad instead of Swedish meatballs, that’s what you get.  

“Meditation?  Yes, I think I’ll take a bit of that. Hmmm . . . Wicca . . . does that fit on my plate right now?  Maybe as a side dish?  Oh, look . . . it’s affirmations and positive thinking.  Man, I haven’t had those in FOREVER.  Yum. . .”

There are no priests or pastors standing at your shoulder telling you that you REALLY want the roast beef instead of the tacos.  YOU choose what’s nourishing for you at that moment and take a pass on what doesn’t feed your soul.  And it’s an all you can eat buffet.  You’re always free to go back for second helpings.

But maybe skip the bacon sandwich.  Just consider it.

Bundles of Sticks, Ajahn Brahm, and the Ten of Wands

Finding closure on experiences that don’t make any sense.

Should we carry our past with us or just throw it away?

The Ten of Wands shows a person plodding along, carrying a large bundle of sticks.  The, “sticks,” are wands, the suit of the Tarot that represents ideas, so he’s actually carrying a massive number of ideas.  

If we take a little closer look at the card we notice a few odd things about it.  First, he’s not at all carrying the sticks the way that we’d expect.  If we pick up a big old honker of a load of sticks, we’d throw them over our shoulder, right?  Instead,  he’s carrying them in front of himself, with his head pressed into the bundle. 

Second, the sticks are all crossed up at the bottom and going in different directions at the top.  If someone asked us to lug a large pile of sticks across the yard, we’d probably throw a rope around them and tie them together, not carry them in a loose, unwieldy mess.

Third, he’s definitely not watching where he’s going.  His head is tilted down, as if he’s watching each step he’s taking, rather than keeping his eyes on his destination.

So just by looking at the face of the card, we can deduce quite a few things about it.  This guy is probably an intellectual, or at least someone who thinks a great deal, because he has many, many ideas that he’s carrying around.  His ideas don’t really, “fit,” together, and they’ve become quite a burden for him.  In fact, he’s so involved with carrying his ideas that he really has no idea where he’s going.  He’s so lost in his ideas that he has no perspective on his life.

The Australian Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm, tells a funny story about sticks.  When he was a novice monk he was strolling through the forest with his teacher, the head monk at the monastery where he was studying.  The master suddenly picked up a stick from the forest floor and asked, “How heavy is this stick, Ajahn Brahm?”  And then he threw it away and asked, “How heavy is it now?”

The point, of course, is that something is, “heavy,” only when we hold on to it.  It’s the act of PICKING IT UP AND CARRYING IT that makes it heavy.  We don’t look at a stick on the ground and say, “Oh, crap, that’s heavy.”  We only say it when we try to pick it up.  It’s our act of grasping something that makes it seem heavy, not the thing itself.

Human beings are natural storytellers.  We all reflexively try to make sense out of our lives and weave the events we experience into a coherent, sensible narrative.  We have an innate drive to try to make sense out of what happens to us and so we’re constantly reviewing our pasts and rearranging the puzzle pieces of our lives into some sort of a rational structure.

We don’t just say, “Well, I lost my fucking mind and decided to quit my job, leave my husband, and move to Montana to grow dental floss.  Just for no particular reason.”  Instead, we say, “After several years of marriage I felt a yearning for solitude and spiritual growth that could only be satisfied by disconnecting from social obligations that had become increasingly mundane.”  

That feels ever so much better.

We need to feel that it all makes sense, somehow.

From a Buddhist perspective, constantly trying to make sense out of our pasts is tantamount to picking up that stick.  It only becomes heavy, it only becomes a burden, when we grasp it and carry it around with us.  In fact, Ajahn Brahm actually recommends writing, “this is my past,” on a stick and throwing it as far away as we can.  Just let it go.  When we’re not carrying it, it’s not heavy.

Now, modern psychology has a different take on it.  Therapists tell us that it IS important to try to make sense out of what’s happened to us and to strive for a sense of meaningfulness in our lives.  Bottom lining it, that’s why we go to therapists:  because our lives aren’t making any sense and we need someone to help us sort it all out.

I suspect that for most of us, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  If we wake up one morning and have no past, we may have suffered a psychotic break.  Or, in the case of people like Eckhart Tolle, perhaps we’ve had a massive revelation, a huge psychic shift that made us realize how absurd our previous thinking was.

For those of us who are neither psychotics nor enlightened spiritual masters, though, just tossing our pasts out the window isn’t an option.  It seems we can’t just NOT think about it.

Which brings us to that tired, but still valid, word:  closure.

We think of closure as having worked through a problem or a process in life until we’ve made sense of it, until it fits logically into our coherent narrative of what our lives mean.  If we go through a divorce, for instance, we may go to a therapist and try to figure out why it happened.  What was our role in the relationship breaking apart?  What was our spouses role?  What did we do wrong?  What did we do right?  What can we learn from it to make our future relationships better?  Eventually, when we’ve talked through all of those issues, we start to achieve closure and we’re ready to move on from it.  We haven’t necessarily thrown the stick away, but we’ve made it a hell of a lot lighter to carry.

There are other issues, though, that we can never seem to make any sense out of.

– If you were badly abused as a child, that doesn’t make any sense.  You didn’t do anything to deserve it and there’s no logical or emotional reason it should have happened to you.

-If you’re an open and loving person and you got chewed up and spit out by a malignant narcissist, that doesn’t make any sense.  You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t deserve it, and it shouldn’t have happened.

-If the new boss from hell fires you from your dream job because he’s a sexist or a sadist, that doesn’t make any sense.  You were a great employee, there’s no justice in it, and it shouldn’t have happened.

So there’s a kind of a subclass of experiences that we all have that we could call, “doesn’t make any sense,” experiences.  Those are the experiences that get really, “sticky.”  Those are the experiences that we pick up and carry with us.  We go over and over and over them, trying to figure them out, trying to make them somehow fit into our narratives, our story.  But they never do.

“Doesn’t make any sense,” experiences are the ones that are most likely to wound us spiritually and emotionally.  They keep us stuck.  They keep us wounded.  They keep us living in pain.

Oddly, though, they’re also the experiences that are easiest to let go of, if we think of them in the right way.  If we’ve honestly, sincerely, conscientiously tried to figure them out and we can’t do it, we can just say, “Well, fuck it.  This doesn’t make any sense.”  And then we can put that experience in a nice, “doesn’t make any sense,” box, tie a brightly colored, “doesn’t make any sense,” ribbon around it, and toss it in the nearest river.

Maybe we’re not enlightened or smart enough to throw all of our, “sticks,” away, but we can throw some of them away.  We can consciously choose which parts are valuable and which parts are worthless.  We can drop some of the burden and make it a little easier to move forward in our lives.  

And that’s a good start.

Lost Car Keys, Emotional Ladders and Being Ram Dass’s Illegitimate Child

Learning to climb our emotional ladders.

Did you ever have one of those morning meditations that was absolutely perfect?  Maybe you get up out of bed, light a candle on your altar, close your eyes, and the love and peace just FLOW into you as you sit there.  You feel compassion for all living beings and you feel oneness with the entire cosmos.  You feel that if you aren’t totally Buddha-like, you must at least be the illegitimate child that Ram Dass never acknowledged.  You are just SO high, SO spiritual, SO totally in the flow!

The feeling may continue as you take your shower, allowing the warm water to wash all the negativity from your aura.  And then again, as you eat your oatmeal, reminding yourself that you honor all living beings by not eating the flesh of animals.  You know you’ll have a perfect day at work.

And then . . . and then . . . you can’t find your car keys.  You go through the pockets of the clothes you wore the day before.  Check your night stand.  Look under the bed.  Scour your sock drawer.  Crawl around on the floor in case you dropped them.  Within the span of a few moments you’ve been transformed from Pema Chodron into a snarling, wild eyed beast.

“Where are you, you goddamned little jingly bastards?  Where in the fuck ARE you?”

Ironically, at the very height of your fury and hysteria, you locate the keys.  On your altar.

Sigh.  Another failed leap into enlightenment.

In their book, “Ask and It Is Given,”  Esther and Jerry Hicks make the point that sometimes it’s perfectly okay to feel angry.  In fact, sometimes getting really pissed off can be a sign that our mental health is improving.

It’s kind of a breath of fresh air in the New Age/New Thought movement.  We are constantly being told that we must stay positive and that, because of the Law of Attraction, being angry will do nothing but attract angry people and unpleasant events into our lives.  We find ourselves trying to censor our emotions, consistently trying to not feel what we’re feeling –  if what we’re feeling is anger –  and then feeling guilty when we can’t do it.

The Hicks look at it from a slightly different vantage point, which is that angry emotion is better than no emotion.  The basic premise is that our emotions are what motivate us, what keep us moving in life, what draw us toward love and make us run away from hatred.  Without emotions, we’re just stuck, dead in the water.

They say we live on a sort of a ladder of emotions, with apathy and depression at the bottom rungs of the ladder and love and joy at the top. In between joy and depression there are our other emotional states like irritation, feeling overwhelmed, pessimism, hopefulness, and so on.  As we climb the ladder and become more fully emotionally engaged with joy, we become more fully alive. When we descend the ladder into depression and apathy, we’re not really living, we’re just existing.  The ladder would look a lot like this:

JOY

POSITIVE EXPECTATION

OPTIMISM

HOPEFULNESS

PESSIMISM

IRRITATION

OVERWHELM

BLAME

ANGER

REVENGE 

RAGE

DEPRESSION

APATHY

I really like that idea of an emotional ladder because it allows me to be the mess that I frequently am and be honest with myself about where I’m at.  As the Hicks said in another book, it’s easy to program a GPS to take you from Phoenix to L.A. but first you have to know that you’re in Phoenix.  If we’re on the second to the top rung of the ladder – positive expectation – then it’s relatively easy to take that next step up to joy.  On the other hand, if we’re stuck WAY down the ladder in anger and we try to jump straight  up into joy, we’re probably going to fall off of the ladder and land on our asses.  It’s important to be honest with ourselves about where we really are on our emotional journey.  It saves us from broken asses.

And that leads into another neat concept which the Hicks came up with: the, “emotional set point.”  Basically, that’s just the rung of the emotional ladder that we live on most of the time.  We humans tend to be creatures of habit and so we pretty much maintain a consistent emotional state.  If we’re happy most of the time, we’ll stay happy most of the time.  If we’re sad most of the time, we’ll stay sad most of the time.  We may occasionally climb up and down a few rungs on the emotional ladder as life brings us good or bad events, but we tend to return to what feels like our, “natural,” state of being.

And there is a certain natural, genetic component involved in that.  According to The Harvard Health Blog, about half of the reason we may be happy or sad is based on the disposition we were born with.  So that person you know who’s always chirpy and perky and bright and annoyingly happy?  Yeah, that’s probably real.  They were likely just born that way.  And the friend who always seems a little sad may have just inherited it from his parents.  It’s their natural emotional set points.

The good news behind that, though, is that we can change our emotional set points.  Just because it feels, “natural,” to be in a certain emotional state doesn’t mean that we have to stay in that emotional state.

Suppose, for instance, that I’m a perfectionist.  I would want everything to go exactly according to plan and turn out just the way I’d envisioned it. 

What would flow out of that state of being would be a great deal of impatience with my co-workers and/or family members because they weren’t living up to the high standards that I set.  I might be constantly criticizing them, sniping at them, belittling their efforts and generally acting like an insufferable prick.

The cure for that could be to do loving-kindness meditations.  Starting to actively envision what other people are going through and building in empathy for the fact that they’re struggling with life the same way that I am.  As I continued to do that, my perfectionist expectations would drop away and I’d begin to see the people around me as fully dimensional human beings who deserve caring and patience.  I’m changing my emotional set point.

Or perhaps, like so many of us, we grew up in physically or emotionally abusive families.  Our, “go to,” response to stress in life might then be emotional flatness.  We learned very early in life that it’s easier to just turn off our emotions rather than feel the pain of the abuse.  

What flows out of that is becoming emotionally absent with our partners or children whenever there’s a problem.  Even worse, we abandon ourselves emotionally and fail to experience joy and deep love because we’re so shut down.

The cure for that could be to start doing, “happiness meditations.”  Just sit down once or twice a day and meditate on something that makes us happy, even if it’s a distant childhood memory of a beloved dog.  Start learning to live in that emotion again.  Stopping several times during the day and asking ourselves, “Am I happy right now?”  And, if we’re not, pull up that memory again until happiness becomes a habit.

The point is that it’s a practice, the same way that yoga or meditation are practices.  We don’t get where we want to go all at once.  If we come home and find our life partner shtupping our best friend, it’s okay to be angry.  In fact, it’s a hell of a lot better to be angry than it is to be depressed.  Anger can empower us but depression takes our power away.

As long as we’re feeling something, we’re still okay.  We’re still moving.  We’re still growing.  And, as the Hicks said, we can reach up for that next best emotion on the ladder. We can change our emotional set point.  It’s better to feel irritation than to feel overwhelmed.  It’s better to feel pessimism than to feel irritation.  It’s better to feel hopefulness than to feel irritation.  We can steadily, consciously move our emotional set point upward toward joy as long as we’re honest about what we’re feeling and we don’t shut ourselves down.

If we don’t feel it, we don’t heal it.  If we don’t heal it, we don’t grow.  And growing toward happiness is even better than knowing where your car keys are hiding.